Randi Leath had been dreaming on playing on the Rec Hall floor since sixth grade.
“I had dreamt of it since the first day I started playing volleyball,” said Leath, who even worked at matches in the building. “This is hands-down my favorite gym ever.”
There had been a few matches in the building when she played with her club team, but it’s nothing like having almost 2,500 people in the bleachers, plus the Blue Band and the defending national champions lined up on the opposite side of the net.
The middle hitter and State College native made her return to her “home” court this weekend with the DePaul women’s volleybal team for the Penn State Alumni Classic, and the schedule for the Blue Demons started with the Nittany Lions.
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Leath said she felt plenty of excitement before the match Friday, but no real butterflies.
“I wanted to show how much I’ve grown since I left State College,” said Leath, whose friends and family do not get to see her play as much at the Chicago-area campus.
It took a little while for her to show off her offensive game Friday night. She was blocked on one of her three first-set swings by Simone Lee and Nia Grant, and twice later on she and setter Colleen Smith had their timing and positioning off on some quick sets to the middle.
“With it being loud in here, it’s very easy for that to happen,” Leath said of Smith. “... That’s two balls. It’s not a big deal. She’s definitely been an excellent addition to our team.”
But then in the third set, she found her game and was making an impact, registering four kills on six swings. She also had a share of a block earlier in the match.
“That’s been a set I’ve been struggling with for a bit of the preseason, and it’s one of my favorite sets so that’s a little frustrating,” Leath said. “Finally connecting on that, especially in this game, was definitely a highlight of the night. I’ve been really grinding on that one.”
Leath, who played a big role in helping the Lady Little Lions reach the PIAA quarterfinals during her senior season, trained and learned more of the game during a redshirt freshman season. Last year she was fifth on the team averaging 1.57 kills per set, and her .315 hitting percentage was third among those with regular playing time.
Entering Saturday she was fourth on the team averaging 1.35 kills per set, and her .275 hitting is best among the regular hitters.
“She has shown tremendous growth from her first year,” said her coach, Nadia Edwards, a 2001 Penn State graduate. “She’s a little more of a polished player this season. She’s very thoughtful in terms of open shots, where to put the ball ... when our passers are in system, that’s what she looks like. She’s really worked on her blocking this spring, and the swing-blocking that we’re introducing with the team.”
Edwards, a middle hitter on the Nittany Lions’ 1999 national championship team, has been working with Leath watching film once a week, and the faculty scholar is one of the team captains.
“She really sees the block and she thinks about everything that’s going on,” Edwards said. “That just goes with her being very, very intelligent.”
Coming back on Saturday, she had a career-high 12 kills, five blocks, five digs and an ace in a 3-2 loss to Eastern Illinois. She added four kills, two digs and a block in a 3-1 loss to East Carolina later in the day to close her weekend in State College as DePaul fell to 2-10.
Getting to play in front of the big crowd was not only a big thrill for Leath but the whole team. The Blue Demons had not seen a crowd of even 500 at a match so far this season, and aside from 1,267 fans at Creighton last fall, no other turnout was over 700 people.
“We’re not used to this atmosphere with the band and the crowd, and everything like that,” Edwards said. “For us, it’s a true test and sometimes you have to drop the curtain and really focus internally on what you’re doing on your side.”
After watching so many matches from the Rec Hall sideline, it was a special weekend for Leath.
“There weren’t many butterflies,” Leath said. “I was just excited to be here. I’ve grown up with a lot of these girls and played with a lot of them. I wasn’t scared or anything like that. I just wanted to have fun.”